Lost Heroines

2015 Korean drama Midnight Diner / Late Night Restaurant

“Is there a taste you want to remember?”

In a quaint alleyway in the heart of Seoul, a scarred, reticent chef known only as “Master” operates a low-key eatery from midnight to seven in the morning. The menu has just one modest dish, but patrons are free to order whatever they want. Night after night, various sorts of workers drop by and share their woes and joys over the hearty dishes, while Master looks on with a small smile from the kitchen, rarely interjecting a remark except to serve food.

One regular, a down-and-out musician, has this ritual of burying a chunk of butter under white rice, letting it simmer for half a minute there while he sits back contentedly with folded arms, lightly adding a few dashes of soy sauce after that, and then mixing everything together. Looking on in admiration, the other patrons would imitate him and this small place in 2015 Korean drama Midnight Diner, adapted from a Japanese comic series of the same name, becomes a cocoon of simple bliss. In lieu of cash, Master permits the musician to repay him with a guitar performance, bringing more cheer to everyone. These happenings make them momentarily overlook a haughty food critic invited to the eatery one night.

The twist you are waiting for is this: the crowd-pleaser in the room and the most irksome man there are Continue reading

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Weaving Poetry, Beauty and Meaning

Huang Juxiang

Huang Juxiang (lit. fragrance of yellow chrysanthemums), Yamamoto Yueniang’s Peranakan mother and look-alike

Enveloped in a mesmerizing atmosphere with a light touch of folk magic, Southeast Asian drama The Little Nyonya traces the story of its fairylike, Japanese-Peranakan heroine Yamamoto Yueniang from the 1930s to the present day. Its origins, however, began much earlier. Since the 10th century, millions of people from the southern coasts of China had been migrating to the Malay Archipelago, most of them seeking economic opportunities and better living conditions. However, these migrants were largely male as travel restrictions, financial constraints and lack of feminine independence in the patriarchal Chinese society discouraged women from joining the men for a long time. As a result, many early male migrants married local women and their offspring came to be known as Peranakan, a Malay and Indonesian word for locally born people of mixed Malay and foreign ancestry, or Baba-Nyonya. A term with Persian and Hindi-Urdu roots, baba refers to a male Peranakan Chinese (there are also Peranakans of Indian and Portuguese descent), whereas nyonya, a combination of a Chinese dialect word for young lady (nyo) and a Javanese word for madame or concubine (nyai), is the female equivalent.

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A Headful of Mountain Flowers

Poem embroidered on a silk handkerchief in 2004 Hong Kong TVB palace drama War and Beauty

The most boorish and mercenary character in Hong Kong drama War and Beauty is also its greatest romantic.

Eager to leave poverty behind and make a name for himself in the dog-eat-cat world of 19th-century Qing China, delivery agent Kong Wu has no qualms leaving a group of defenseless girls to the mercy of ruthless thugs so that he can complete his job. Yet when he discovers a silk handkerchief embroidered with a poem inside a second-hand battle garment possibly donated by the palace, he develops feelings for its creator even though he does not know her. Continue reading

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Tagorean Victory

Wei Jiasen (George Hu). Mars / Zhuang Junnan (Jiro Wang) and Chem Momo (Raine Yang) in 2009 Taiwanese idol drama ToGetHer 愛就宅一起

If Taiwanese drama ToGetHer could be compared to a dish, it would likely be a hearty cheese and tomato sandwich topped with a soft and silky sunny-side up egg—nothing profound or elegant, but enviably more efficient than a typical philosophical tome at brightening up a wintry morning. All the same, this is not an ordinary sandwich, but one which yolk carries a small dash of the flavor of the sublime sun worshiped by the silence of a tiny flower’s purity under Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s pen.

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Heaven in the Voices

Jeong Do-jeon (Kim Myung-min) in 2015 Korean historical drama / sageuk Six Flying Dragons

“War should not be waged by the rich, because it is the poor who make up the casualties,” bellows Jeong Do-jeon, the man who will become the founding prime minister and master architect of the new nation Joseon. Pointing at the Goryeo prime minister and his cronies seated comfortably under the tent, he continues, “War should not be decided on by the old, because it is the young who perish.”

One by one, the massive sea of common folks, scholars and ministers in the square joins him in the rally against diplomatic ties with the weakened Yuan regime, which the elites are pursuing for personal benefits despite the risk of antagonizing the mighty Ming empire that has replaced it in China. Fights break out between the two sides, as the prime minister lets his armed guards beat up even the weak and the old to shield the Yuan envoys secretly present. Watching on with tears in his eyes, Jeong leads a Goryeo-equivalent of the crowd anthem, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” in the film Les Miserables:

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Fly Away, Skylark!

Ha No-ra (Choi Ji-woo) in 2015 Korean drama Twenty Again

This is a familiar sight in family photographs and illustrations: the wife wraps her arms sweetly around her child, the husband wraps his protectively around them. They are in love yet not quite in love.

Things are not entirely rosy beyond the halo around romantic and parental love. German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) argued that love is really greed in disguise. Each party wants to possess the other and absorb something new from that person into himself. Even sympathetic love is dispensed to relish superiority over the “weak” party. Those craving for such love, in turn, are actually trying to wield the one power they may still have: the ability to get people to suffer for them.

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Back to Heaven

Baek Ma-ri (Kim Seolhyun) in 2015 Korean Drama Orange Marmalade 오렌지 마말레이드

Thoughts drift on and on, in Orange Marmalade‘s 18-year-old male lead‘s mind, to a fresh-faced and slender transfer student who slows down time every so often when she enters his vision, as night segues into day and the guitar ballad crooning about love through the passing seasons in the background segues into a classroom recitation of the last stanza of Cheon Sang-byeong (1930-1993)’s well-loved poem:

귀천 (歸天)

나 하늘로 돌아가리라.
새벽빛 와 닿으면 스러지는
이슬 더불어 손에 손을 잡고,

나 하늘로 돌아가리라.
노을빛 함께 단 둘이서
기슭에서 놀다가 구름 손짓하면은,

나 하늘로 돌아가리라.
아름다운 이 세상 소풍 끝내는 날,
가서, 아름다웠더라고 말하리라…..

Back to Heaven

I will go back to heaven.
Hand in hand with the dew
that vanishes at the touch of dawn light,

I will go back to heaven.
Together with the dusk light and nothing more
should the clouds beckon me while I play on the slopes,

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The World, Created for Dust and Ashes

Byun Ji-sook (Soo Ae)'s Cherry Blossoms Scene in 2015 Korean Drama Mask

Hasidic tales are oral traditions passed down through the centuries in a special branch of Judaism. Its followers, Hasidim (or “Hasidhim” in Hebrew, which translates to “pious ones”), were historically Jews who hailed from all strata of society, including especially the less educated classes. Hasidism values the ideal of treating as sacred even the most mundane activity in life and concentrates on the virtues of ordinary individuals. It comes as no surprise, then, that the heroes of these stories are very frequently common folks, while divinity is found amidst prosaic reality within the narratives.

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A Chest You Can Cry On

Byun Ji-sook (Soo Ae) and Choi Min-woo (Ju Ji-hoon) in 2015 Korean Drama Mask

More than an umbrella,
a person walking in the rain
needs someone who would walk with him.

비를 맞으며 걷는 사람에겐 우산보다
함께 걸어줄 누군가가 필요한 거임을

More than a handkerchief,
a person in tears
needs a chest he can cry on.

울고 있는 사람에겐 손수건 한 장보다
기대어 울 수 있는 한 가슴이
더욱 필요한 것임을.

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